In December, a group of North American Moravians travelled to Nepal to serve and learn. Brian Stangret and Gwyn Michel offer their thoughts on the trip.
Brian: On the first day of Christmas—and after more than a year of planning with Pastor Trina Holmberg and the Board of World Mission—ten of us from congregations in Minnesota and Pennsylvania embarked on the 7,000 mile journey to the heart of the Moravian Church in Nepal.
Working with the Revs. Pradhan, who shared the perspective of local ministry in Nepal and offered practical experience in helping visiting mission teams serve effectively, our plan was to partner with their school in Kathmandu for a weeklong Winter Camp Program. The team would have further engagement with a one-day bible school and youth rally at the Upasana Moravian Church in nearby Khokana, as well as leadership and music workshops with the Baneshwor congregation in Kathmandu.
This was the plan…before the earthquakes and aftershocks, before the blockade and fuel shortages that have plagued the region. In the last weeks and months before leaving, while there was time to reconsider, reschedule, or ask the airline for a refund, it became clear that the Lord was keeping the road between Minneapolis and Kathmandu open.
In light of the difficulties that our sisters and brothers were facing (and continue to) we wondered if this was the right time for a visit. We did not wish to be a burden. We were eager to respond in whatever way would be most helpful. And, over and over, the Moravians in Nepal said, “Come.”
Mission trips are difficult to explain, as you never know what you are getting into. Little did we expect how fulfilling and life-changing this trip would be.
Upon arrival, we were welcomed by our gracious hosts and whisked into the chaos that is Kathmandu. The streets were unlike anything we had seen before: cars, trucks, busses, bicycles, pedestrians, and countless motorcycles all moving the wrong way at breakneck speeds. We saw motorcycles carrying four people (including infants), a whole pig, and even a kitchen sink!
We were brought to our guesthouse where we cleaned up and got ready for supper with our hosts. We ate at a local restaurant and got acquainted with the Pradhans. The plan was to go over lessons and plans, but everyone kept nodding off until we finally decided to try to get some sleep.
Tom Cooper was our “man with a plan,” designing wonderful sessions for the Winter Camp. Tom taught us about birds, mammals, insects, habitat and food chains. The 35 three-to-six-years-olds came from diverse backgrounds. Tom was with these kids and the school’s staff every day. Everyone bonded with “Mr. Tom” and thought his duck calls were pretty neat. Our team followed his lead, helping wherever needed; even coming up with a geology lesson to round out the week.
The Pradhans direct the school with a highly capable staff of teachers and caretakers. During the school session there are about 75 children enrolled. This spring they will be opening an adjacent location for seven-to-eight year olds. The Pradhans are truly leading this ministry along a wonderful path of education and community partnership.
Traveling to Khokana
The next day, six of our group traveled to Khokana to lead vacation bible school for children ages 6-14. We were ready to go when we discovered that the instructional video with the theme song and corresponding dance moves was missing. None of us are singers or dancers, but we improvised actions and sang along to an audio recording of our VBS song, “All Around the World.” Everyone joined in and told us what good singers and dancers we were; the Nepali people are kind and respectful, and clearly very good-humored!
We divided into four stations: a dramatic telling of the story of Jesus and the woman at the well; a video on autism and being different; craft bracelets; and a shrinking island and goofy relay race. We ended the day with s’mores (something completely new and strange to many of the children) and a recap of the day sharing pictures, video highlights, and hilarious outtakes taken by our teammate and camera guy Keith Griffin.
On Thursday we split up again. Pastor Brian (Dixon) organized a Rally at Khokana for Moravian Youth ages 15-25 focusing on fruit of the Spirit. Things started with about a dozen worship songs led by Rev. Pradhan and others. The singing and music were awesome! Brian taught from John 20:19-23, when Jesus gives his disciples the Holy Spirit, and Galatians 5:22,23 where the fruit of the Spirit are listed.
In small discussion groups we shared reflections and activities. Many of us were nervous about trying to explain the connections between these verses and relating them to our own faith. We each had wonderful groups to work with and youth leaders who translated and kept everyone involved.
We all shared one gift of the Spirit that we either felt we had or would like to develop. Then we prayed for one another. The day ended with hilarious skits, more music and dancing. First the men danced and then the women, led by a young woman named Lydia and Tom’s daughter Autumn! Rev. Pradhan was pressured into teaching us a “typical” Nepali dance, which I am sure was anything but. It was comical and a whole lot of fun. There is probably a video, but let’s hope it stays off the internet.
Saturday was church day and our earliest morning. We were picked up at 7 a.m. for service back at Khokana. The temperature was barely above freezing and there is no heat in any of the buildings. We could see our breath in church as we sat on the floor cross-legged for about two hours. The service was wonderful, led by singing, guitars and drums. Gwyn Michel from the Moravian Music Foundation and College Hill Moravian Church taught us all a new song that was our musical offering. The local farmers brought their offerings of rice and lentils to the front of the sanctuary as they arrived.
Pastor Brian preached a sermon inviting us to consider that “Let there be light,” are the first spoken words of the bible and how we are called to put those words in action as followers of Jesus. The church gradually warmed up as more than 100 people came to worship and celebrate Holy Communion.
We then continued to a second service at Baneshwor in Kathmandu. This congregation meets on the third floor of a downtown resource building. Simon is the worship leader here, along with the pastors.
The church in Nepal is very much alive with the Spirit and at work introducing the community to Jesus in many different ways. It was very interesting to watch the people who live near of each of these congregations walking slowly by or even stopping to listen to what was being said and sung about by their Moravian neighbors.
The planning, prayers, and partnerships behind this mission trip truly made the difference. The team members brought many different talents and abilities. The people of Nepal touched our hearts and blessed our souls with their kind and gentle ways. In all the chaos from the recent earthquake and fuel embargo, our brothers and sisters there find ways to keep moving forward without complaint.
We never felt unsafe and were always greeted—on busy city streets or along quiet country paths up in the hills—with the traditional greeting, “Namaste.” It is performed with a slight bow, hands together, palms touching, fingers to the sky and thumbs to the chest. And, it carries the meaning, “I honor the divine in you.”
We thought that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but know now that we wish to return. We are hopeful to be able to go back with family and friends to see where the Church is going, to help with other projects, to continue growing relationships, to trek the Annapurna Circuit, and maybe even to eat a few more momos.
Gwyn: I must admit that I was probably the “doubting Thomas” of the team, with concerns about how the presence of ten Americans would impact the limited resources of our Nepali hosts. How on earth would they deal with us while, at the same time, attempting to recover from a devastating earthquake and an overwhelming fuel crisis?
What I hadn’t taken into account, of course, was the gracious hospitality and resourcefulness of our brothers and sisters. They welcomed us with open arms. Like the five wise bridesmaids in Matthew’s Gospel, they had stockpiled fuel and supplies for our visit, anticipating our every need. We were well cared for on this journey.
The Nepalese are a friendly, joyous people. They currently have much to overcome—with the aforementioned earthquake and fuel crisis—but they face these challenges very practically.
The Moravian Church in Khokana was rendered uninhabitable after the earthquake, so they built a new one! The new church compound is impressive: a series of four buildings, including the sanctuary, kitchen, Sunday School classes, and a Day Care, all built in a two-month period with room to expand as the need and the money arise.
We also experienced a palpable joy in worship. From the opening strains of the worship choruses, accompanied by rhythmic guitars and driving percussion, to the wonderful singing, which could have – and often does – gone on and on, their praise is tangible.
Despite their own constraints, our Nepalese brothers and sisters anticipated our every need. We were fed and housed with graciousness. In true Moravian style, each worship service or program seemed to end with a glorious lunch (something one experiences among Moravians from Zeist to Bluefields to Kathmandu); a time for food and fellowship, opening doors to lifelong opportunities and friendships.
The Moravian Church in Nepal is new! In a culture that is predominately Hindu, the Christian faith is a new component, accounting for only 1.4% of religious make-up of the country. Thus, many Moravians in Nepal are hearing the bible stories for the very first time. To watch these new Christians explore biblical questions and answers was eye-opening to those of us more steeped in the tradition. Would that we could all encounter the bible with the same openness to learning and hunger for the Word expressed by our Nepalese sisters and brothers. What new insights and inspiration might we find?
From the pink Himalayan morning sky to the bright clothing of the children at the preschool, color was everywhere. The joy of its people is outwardly reflected in the colorful hats and mittens and scarves worn by the children and the beautiful saris worn by the women. At the same time, the brilliant smiles and bright eyes of our brothers and sisters offer an outward reflection of the beauty of their inner souls.
As is true of any mission trip, the meager gifts we brought with us to share were answered ten-fold. Our team served as leaders for six days of a ten-day Winter Camp at the preschool. We received days/months/years of smiles, laughter and hugs in return. What we brought to the one-day Vacation Bible School, Youth Rally, Church Leadership and Music workshops, we reaped a thousand-fold in joy, enthusiasm, and insights. The pillowcase dresses (provided by Moravians in North Carolina), blankets (from Ohio), vitamins, school supplies, microphones and sound systems we delivered were quickly put to use during our stay and will continue to enhance both the Nepali ministry and, in turn, our work and witness here in North America for years and ages to come.
In short, travel with and among our Moravian family has been both a challenge and a joy from the 18th Century through to the 21st. May this exchange continue for centuries to come! n
Brian Stangret is a member of Waconia Moravian Church in Minnesota; Gwyn Michel is assistant director of the Moravian Music Foundation and a member of College Hill Moravian Church. Photos by Brian Dixon and Keith Griffin.